The Hi Hat Lounge (1701 N. Arlington Pl.) once thrived on the flavored martini craze of the late 90s and early aughts. In 2010, under new bar manager Daniel Dufek, the Lounge boldly scrapped the once-popular martini program in favor of a craft cocktail menu and a greater focus on spirits of all types. Daniel's first menu featured cocktails named for classic film noir, such as Double Indemnity and The Beautiful and the Damned, adding to an atmosphere of retro-classiness in stark contrast to the contemporary-kitsch of flavored vodka martinis.
In the two years hence, cocktail culture nationwide and in Milwaukee, in particular, has taken off. Bars like Distil, Hotel Foster and The Hamilton have entered the market with craft cocktails as their staple, but the Hi Hat remains a leader.
Now the general manager, Daniel has left the menu in the hands of new bar manager Cody Magee.
"We want to be educators of the East Side," Magee says. "People know [where] they can get a great cocktail, now we're trying to spread more of that knowledge... You can see what we do with it, and you can go home and experiment yourself."
The current menu features six seasonal cocktails, such as previously mentioned The Beautiful and the Damned, which is a tequila cocktail made with Rishi cinnamon plum tea; six classic cocktails, like the popular Mai Tai and Sazerac; three house originals that they term "evolved" cocktails, including Daniel's signature Blackberry Smash, which balances sweet bourbon and blackberries with heavily aromatic Fernet Branca; and three Manhattans, of which the rum-based Port of Spain is the stand-out.
And, yes, there are still martinis on the menu, but they're not the Technicolor mutations of the past.
Beyond the menu items, each of the bartenders is an encyclopedia of cocktail knowledge, and willing to experiment on your behalf.
The cocktails are priced very modestly from $7 to $12, which is a great value for the quality of ingredients going into them. They would be within their rights to charge $3-$5 more per drink, but their current price point encourages curious drinkers to take a chance on something they might have otherwise avoided because of the cost.
With more than 350 bottles of spirits, there is an abundance of choices for a neat- or rocks-pour, but many of the finer bottles are hidden in the crowded backbar. The Lounge has begun featuring some of those rare and exclusive bottles, with prices for various pours, on a new chalkboard display next to their featured specials. If you’re looking for something specific, ask, because it’s likely to be back there.
The short selection of taps—seven in total—predominantly features Lakefront standouts Riverwest Stein, IPA and Klisch. The bottle selection favors those with a complex beer palette, with selections from Unibroue, Madison’s Ale Asylum, O’So Brewery from Plover, among others.
Situated as it is on Brady Street and between Marquette and UWM, weekend nights can fill with a less-decorous college crowd, and service can back up. But good cocktails take time, after all. And, unfortunately, that's life anywhere on the East Side.
During happy hour (4-7 p.m., half-price taps and $5 appetizers) and on any other night of the week, you can expect room to sit and ambient volume suitable for conversation.
Bryant's Lounge is the grandfather of all Milwaukee cocktail bars, but the Hi Hat Lounge is a worthy scion. As long as they remain creative and passionate about their work, they'll be one of Milwaukee's best bars, period.
Photos courtesy of Hi Hat Lounge.